If the Washington Nationals lose free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, how will it affect their infield defense in 2013? The Nationals and LaRoche are currently in contract talks, but do not seem to be close to making a deal.
Though the left side of the infield had to deal with injuries in 2012, Washington had one of the better defenses in MLB. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman played most of the season with an injured right shoulder. Shortstop Ian Desmond spent time on the disabled list in July with a sore back.
When Desmond went down, second baseman Danny Espinosa was moved to short and the Nationals did not skip a beat. Espinosa came up in the organization as a shortstop and was switched to second to make room for Desmond.
Espinosa, Desmond and Zimmerman all leaned heavily on LaRoche in 2012. The veteran first baseman did a fine job of holding them up. Whenever one of his teammates made a bad throw, LaRoche would bail them out with deft footwork around the bag and smooth fielding. This gave Desmond and Zimmerman confidence while they were playing with injury. Each knew that even though they may not be able to get what they wanted on their throws, LaRoche would come up with the ball.
By performing so well in 2012, LaRoche earned his first Gold Glove Award. Unless Washington has another Gold Glove first baseman stashed away, there is no question that the team’s infield will not be as good without him. It is hard to top seven errors and a .995 fielding percentage. If LaRoche does not resign, then Washington will have to make a decision as to who will take his place.
The first option seems to be moving left fielder Michael Morse back to first. He became the Nationals starter when LaRoche missed most of 2011 due to a shoulder injury. Morse did an above average job, but he is not as smooth as LaRoche. Where LaRoche is a natural at the position, Morse is more robotic. He is stiff with his footwork and has a tendency to short arm throws in the dirt.
If Morse becomes the starting first baseman, his teammates will no longer be able to rely on the solid glove work that they have with LaRoche. They will have to be more precise with their throws on routine plays and may be hesitant in making tough throws across their body going away from first. However, they do have experience playing with Morse and know his strengths and weaknesses.
Washington’s other option at the moment is Tyler Moore. The organization feels very comfortable with him at first and he plays it well. Moore replaced LaRoche whenever the latter took a day off.
The only drawback with Moore is experience. Though he has played first often for the Nats, Moore needs more time on the field to earn his teammates respect and gain confidence.
Where Morse and Moore will both benefit is in having a healthy Desmond and Zimmerman. With each man not having to play in pain, their throws should be more accurate and whoever plays first won’t have to work as hard.
Washington hopes that this is the case, because if they can not resign LaRoche, then the other three infielders may have to carry their new first baseman just as LaRoche held them up in 2012.